If this is true, we can only say thank God for small favours. The last thing on earth we should do is nominate Rob Manfred for a Nobel Prize. But if he’s not kidding, and the designated hitter will come to stay in the National League, he and his employers who’ve locked players out since December began deserve a single cheer. But only that.
There’s plenty to be said for the better-late-than-never side of the argument, of course. There’s just as much to be said for the what-the-hell-took-you-so-long side of it. Writing as one of the formerly stubborn, who long insisted that I’d rather have seen revival of the AMC Gremlin than the DH in the National League, I can’t decide either right now.
But it’s about time. It’s long overdue. And I’ll be a nice guy about it and say, yes, better late than never.
No longer will we have to watch the suffocating majority of pitchers swinging pool-noodle bats at the plate accompanied by the very outside prayer than one of them might poke a base hit—if he gets lucky. You tantrum-throwing “traditionalists” can just sit in the corner. Pitchers who could hit were, are, and would always be outliers.
I’m going there one more time. This is the batting average of pitchers overall from the end of the dead ball era’s final decade to the end of last season: .162. As a class, they’re the most guaranteed out in baseball. At the plate, they make Mark Belanger resemble Mookie Betts.
“Gotcha!” the “traditionalist” hollers when I mention Belanger. Meaning, what’s the big deal about pitchers hitting below the Mendoza Line if there might be a Belanger in the lineup, too?
Here’s the big deal: Mark Belanger only got to play eighteen seasons of major league baseball because he was a human Electrolux who remains the second most prolific run-saving shortstop in baseball behind Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith. The number one reason Belanger isn’t in the Hall of Fame is because he couldn’t hit even if it meant sparing his families’ lives from kidnappers.
The “traditionalist” who tells you so what, we’ve had how many middle infielders hitting that feebly, should be told one guy at or below the Mendoza Line in the lineup is pushing it already, but two for the sake of a “tradition” that should have gone the way of the Gremlin long before the Gremlin hit the road in the first place is malpractise.
I’m going here one more time, too. The DH wasn’t just a figment of a warped American League owner’s imagination. Almost a century before Charlie Finley persuaded then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn to let the American League give it a shot, Pirates owner William Chase Temple hatched the idea—after the key pitchers on his 1891 Pirates hit a collective .165.
The only reason Temple’s brainchild didn’t get signed into league law by his fellow NL owners was an incoming owner, Chris von der Ahe, bringing the original St. Louis Browns into the league after the collapse of the ancient American Association, reneging on a previous yes to vote no and deny the needed majority.
Now, concurrently, National League fans will no longer have to sit on edge because a pitcher at the plate might send himself to the injured list either swinging the bat or running the bases, doing what he’s not being paid to do primarily. Neither will they have to sit on edge over a rally in the making because the pitcher’s spot is due at the plate and that rally’s life expectancy might be zero.
Yes, I’m going there one more time, too, “there” being the wisdom of now-retired Thomas Boswell: “It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out as if he thinks he’s Ty Cobb. But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.”
You think Boswell was nuts? That very situation happened in the bottom of the second in Atlanta, during Game Three of last year’s World Series. Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud stood on second with a two-out double. The Astros ordered their starting pitcher Luis (Rock-a-Bye Samba) Garcia to signal Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson—a decent hitter—to first with a free pass . . . because due up behind Swanson was Braves starter Ian Anderson and his .54 cent regular-season batting average.
I’m sure you were (or will be, if you missed it) shocked, shocked, that Garcia struck Anderson out to end the threat and the inning. The Braves won the game 2-0 on a combined two-hit shutout. They might have had a shot at a precious third run if Anderson hadn’t had to hit in the second but a more competent bat was in the lineup as the DH in the National League park.
Last year’s pitchers batted a whopping .110 with a .150 on-base percentage. Scherzer, he who loves to run out his once-in-a-very-blue-moon base hits as if he thinks he’s Ty Cobb, went above and beyond contributing his fair share: Max the Knife went 0-for-2021.
Let’s just make sure, first, that Manfred and the owners aren’t going to pull a fast one and tie the universal DH to the suggested—and patently insane—idea of demanding a team surrender its DH if it has to lift its starting pitcher before pitching a minimum number of innings. Suppose the poor sap gets murdered early. Do you really want to force him to stay until he meets his minimum, because you can’t afford to lose your DH’s bat, and risk sinking your team so deep that the ocean floor will look like the ceiling?
Now, let me just say these, so you don’t persist in thinking I’ve gone totally and completely insane or been taken over by an invasion of a body snatcher:
Yes, it was fun learning as a kid that Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn surrendered the first of Hall of Famer Willie Mays’s 660 lifetime home runs (in 1951) and the first (in 1962) of only two homers Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax would ever hit.
Yes, it was fun watching Jim (Mudcat) Grant park one in the seats during the 1965 World Series, it was fun watching Tony Cloninger smack two grand salamis in a single game in 1966, and it was fun watching Madison Bumgarner hit a pair out on one Opening Day.
Yes, it was hilarious fun watching Bartolo Colon hit one out in San Diego . . . in his 247th lifetime plate appearance during the seventeenth season of his major league career. It was even funnier watching Colon run it out knowing he’d lose a footrace againt a trash truck on two flat rear tires.
It’s always fun watching the outliers. But rather than watch them while seeing the suffocating majority of their peers swinging bats that might as well have been made by Ronzoni, I’d rather listen to one of them speaking wisely about the long, long, long-established reality.
“I’m always late to the on-deck circle, just because I need to unplug for a minute,” Braves pitcher Charlie Morton (lifetime batting average: .127) told the New York Times last fall, “and I like to worry about the job that I have to do on the mound. That’s what I’m paid to do, that’s what I’m prepared to do, spend the vast majority of my time doing. They’re paying guys lots of money and guys are working their tails off trying to be good hitters, and I’m up there taking at-bats.”
And I, like Boswell, would rather surrender the pleasure of the outliers to the greater pleasure of seeing pitchers preserved for the job they were signed to do in the first place, no longer slaughtering rallies or sending themselves to the injured list doing what they as a class have never been able to do since P.T. Barnum opened his first circus.
When the Army Air Force was broken away into a stand-alone military service in 1947, the Air Force Association’s magazine proclaimed it “The Day Billy Mitchell Dreamed Of,” referring to the pilot whose stubborn and too-often-verbally defiant advocacy for air power as the wave of the future got him court-martialed and rousted out of the Army two decades earlier.
Manfred declaring the designated hitter will be universal starting this season, whenever the season may begin, could be called likewise “The Day William Chase Temple Dreamed Of.”